By HARRY McGEE
THE GOVERNMENT may have to delay ambitious plans to hold at least 10 referendums during its term of office following the defeat of the proposed constitutional amendment to give more powers to Oireachtas committees, the Minister for Public Reform has conceded.
Brendan Howlin yesterday accepted that the rejection of the 30th amendment would have serious repercussions for the Coalition’s plan to hold a constitutional convention next year on multiple amendments, including abolition of the Seanad, same-sex marriage, and a review of the provisions for the president.
The admission came as Mr Howlin apologised unreservedly for his criticism of Referendum Commission chairman Bryan McMahon at the weekend.
“I regret that answers I gave to questions during the [referendum] count were seen to be critical of the Referendum Commission,” he said. “I was simply trying, in a cack-handed way, to answer the question of what were the issues that led to a No vote.”
Mr Howlin was speaking on RTÉ radio where he withdrew the criticism of the chairman which led the commission to issue a rebuke to the Government on Sunday.
“We have to have an independent voice to weight and parse and analyse referendum matters and give impartial advice. That is what they did and it was never my intention to indicate in any way that they acted in any other way but with complete probity,” he said.
On the fallout from the referendum loss, Mr Howlin said he had underestimated the extent of the public’s continuing mistrust of politicians.
The Government would need to give adequate time to allow the public fully deliberate complicated questions, he said, adding that it would take time to restore confidence in politicians.
“It’s a job for me as Minister and for Government colleagues to restore that full trust. How are we going to deal with complicated questions and allow adequate time for full deliberation?”
He said dialogue was needed on how the constitutional convention would be structured, to ensure there “real buy-in” from people. “We need to think long and hard about how we advance the big questions . . . make institutions more accountable and how to get at truth.”
The defeat of the referendum places a doubt over the future of the Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions, chaired by Sinn Féin’s Peadar Toibin. Many of its functions were reliant on legislation that was to be enacted after the referendum.
Fianna Fáil spokesman on public reform Seán Fleming said last night that the defeat of the amendment had pushed the convention back to 2014 at least.
He said it was “not remotely conceivable” that the Government could return with a revised amendment to give committees investigative powers within a year.